Thursday, August 18, 2011

Zero Tolerance for Absolutism!

Last week, I shared on Facebook that I'd had this crazy idea of making congress and senate terms LONGER. As I continue to observe what passes for discourse in our society and read the comments on various news articles or opinion pieces, it drives me to other crazy ideas.
Today I was reading Robert Reich on what he hoped would be in the president's Jobs Agenda. He had ten ideas that he thought would boost the economy (which is the quickest and most effective way to get the budget under control). Reich has his own opinions, but as former Labor Secretary, Rhodes Scholar, and respected political economist they ought at least to be listened to. When I read the normal commenters pointing out how stupid Reich was and how hopeless his solutions were, I thought that maybe I needed to take them seriously for a minute.

Twenty years ago, Jeralynne and I got to hear Theda Skocpol talking about what she called "Targeting within Universalism" as a strategy for assisting the underclass. The idea is that while there are general benefits that extend to members of a society one can focus specifically within that on particular problem areas. Her view, and those of others like her, have been influential in the progressive approach to government. The argument is that there is a difference government can make to mitigate social situations which benefit the whole society in the long run.

But such a view requires a long-term view and a willingness to allow differential treatment. These are two views that today's rhetoric won't allow. Our current rhetoric has moved to all or nothing. 

  • Are we in favor of mitigating global warming or hampering business with needless regulations?
  • Will we have a social safety net for those in need or commit to supporting freeloaders
  • Should we supporting folks who abused the mortgage industry or provide foreclosure assistance for those upside down?
  • Should we privatizing social security and medicare or “don’t touch my benefits”
  • Are we committed to an unfettered free market or open to targeted Keynsian economic policy?
  • Are we committed to tax fairness or to cutting taxes?

In general, we've bounced around between these polar views. I don't know how to overcome the polarization (and many politicians and pundit have no interest in doing so).
So I’ve been thinking about pragmatism and the art of compromise. It’s important to win the long campaign even if one might lose the near-term battle. 

It strikes me that we have some sociological and theological realities that limit our reliance on absolutism. First, Weber made clear that the nature of the bureaucratic form is that it prizes rationality above all Rules are to be followed in all cases. Sometimes, the application of rules for good reason have bad effects. (examples abound – school religion decisions, local decisions about holiday celebrations, an arrow maker in Oregon who gets caught by federal law, environmental impact studies that favor the snail darter). Bureaucracies aren’t effective at dealing with scale. Because they're committed to rationality and equal treatment, we deal with every situation as a potential infraction (which feeds the outrage machine at Fox and other places).

Theologically, we acknowledge that people are sinful. They will act in ways that allow greed, selfishness, and callousness to need to bear fruit (even when hidden behind more benign-sounding rationales). Systems don’t work perfectly because of the limitations of the folks implementing the systems (examples again abound – oil industry regulators partying with industry folks, continuation of ethanol subsidies in spite of profits, over-aggressive rulemakers with personal axes to grind, mine owners who ignore safety citations because they know there aren’t enough investigators).

These sociological and theological challenges become particularly problematic when connected to a “zero-tolerance” approach to government. The zero tolerance approach had great popularity in public schools as it related to sexual harassment, bullying, and weapons. Once again, it doesn’t take long on Google to find examples where the zero tolerance approach yields really bad decisions. 

But this focus on zero tolerance adds to the burden of good government. And it really upsets the commenters I read.

So I've willing to think about things from their perspective (told you it was crazy). 

What if we focus on levels of severity? For example, we could lessen requirements for environmental impacts under normal circumstances but drastically raise the penalties for environmental damage. So BP has its problem in the Gulf and the penalties are so large as to make BP not competitive for years to come. 

We could do the same thing with medicare. We'll be less concerned about "waste, fraud, and abuse" at the outset and let the system do its own thing. But if you commit fraud, you're going to jail for a long time and reimbursing those harmed. 

We could provide mortgage assistance to folks who were impacted by the refinancing craze who found the house underwater (particularly those with ARMs) but incur stiff criminal penalties for owners and bankers who significantly gamed the  system. 

We could allow charter schools as an alternative to public education but if they don't perform investors sacrifice four times their investment (read about Zaccheus in the book of Matthew) that would be dedicated to the public schools.

In some ways, this approach could fit in nicely with the celebrity culture of the media. We could make Bernie Madoff stories over everyone listed in the last paragraph and let Nancy Grace interpret their trial every night.
This crazy idea is actually related to the psychology of reinforcement -- one can get good results by random reinforcement with HUGE rewards or punishments. (I once argued that I could take attendance only once a semester but if you were missing you'd drop two letter grades -- it would work but I've never had the guts to try it.)

So I'm willing to explore alternatives to my preferred solutions. Can the other side please do the same? Can we declare a moratorium on our talking points for two years to get the economy back on its feet?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Time to Blame the Messenger

It's been two months since my last post. Too much packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in for much writing on issues of civil discourse. I learned how much this little blog plays a cathartic role: when I can name something and write about it, I actually feel more optimistic about the future. Without the writing, I was mad, just below the surface, too much of the time. Of course, it didn't help that this period of (mostly) quiet stewing coincided with one of most ridiculous periods of dysfunctional government we've seen in decades. I'm truly worried that the strategies that played out over the past two months in Washington will be the new baseline for future strategic encounters. Here is a must-read article in today's Washington Post that makes clear that this debt ceiling fight was not the result of the accidental calculus of negotiating with varied interest groups in the government but was Intentional and Planned For since the 2008 election.

I am deeply troubled by the mendacity of our elected representatives. I had an exchange with the office of my new congressman where I encouraged a reasonable, balanced deal. He sent out a stock reply that 1) accused the president of wanting a clean bill (while not acknowledging weeks of negotiation on a compromise deal), 2) said that holding the line on the debt ceiling was important to control spending (while not acknowledging that the debt ceiling was related to past spending), and 3) said that "families cut budgets" (while not acknowledging that most families have deep struggles with credit card and home equity debt). I responded that we didn't agree but he that he owed it to his constituents (not just the Republicans) not to engage in misleading reports.

But in the week since the deal was reached (to say nothing of the 48 hours since S&P acted), I've been redirecting my quiet anger from politicians to the media figures that enable them. It's time to lay blame where it belongs -- politicians do what they do because the press not only allows it, but actively encourages it.

Friday night, NPR was doing their normal "week in politics" report. Melissa Block was speaking with Joy-Ann Reid, a "liberal commentator for the Miami Herald" and Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post. Both commentators recrafted their answers to fit their pre-existing talking points. When asked to react to the polling data that showed most people preferred to see taxes raised on those making over $250,000, Rubin said that other polls showed that people didn't want to tax small businesses. The interviewer then asked Reid to respond. But Rubin had made a basic error of logic. A Venn Diagram of a) people making over $250K and b) small business owners would show some slice of an overlap but they're not at all the same thing. Rubin knows that. So does the interviewer. So why did she let it go unchallenged? She did let Reid respond and critique the point (and she did a good job) but it leaves the image of folks who simply disagree. Talking points occur on the democratic side as well.

In addition to these "two views on politics" stories, you get the mindless charade that is the Sunday morning talk shows. I've commented before that I'm a fan of Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post. I admire his attempt to introduce reality in the midst of talking points and I like his sense of humor. He performs the thankless task of recording the talk shows and blogging on what was said. What he really does is point out how empty this kabuki theater is every week. But the news on Monday will involve, at least in part, what so-and-so said on Sunday morning. The talk shows have become vehicles of message management (the public statements on Sundays made the actual negotiations on a debt deal that much harder). But we can't expect anything of substance to come from these shows because they follow the same format at the NPR story. Meet the Press asks John Kerry and John McCain to come on as guests. What are the odds that they will 1) say anything new, 2) take each other's points into consideration, and 3) reach some kind of common way forward? Each week Politico gives an update on who's supposed to be on the four talk shows. I don't know why we bother because the same people are disproportionately represented. How much expertise can John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Kerry, or Dick Durbin have on the relevant issues? Are these the only voices? What about other senators who have more pragmatic streaks? There are 100 to choose from. Maybe we should share the wealth. Even then, it would only work if David Gregory showed the strength to ask good questions and not make everything about Obama's re-election.

There are some small positive steps forward in the media world. A week ago, Don Lemon of CNN was interviewing Senator Rand Paul. Lemon attempted to get Paul to actually answer the question that was asked before moving to his stock speech. Paul was offended that Lemon interrupted him, but I admired with Lemon was up to. But there's so much further to go than that.

Why has the media become all about what politicians have to say? How did they become the talking point reflector? Fifteen years ago, James Fallows of The Atlantic (then of US News), wrote an insightful book titled Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. He anticipated the growth in punditry (reporters serving as TV "contributors"), the move of media from newsgathering to entertainment, the corporatization of media enterprises, and reporters wanting to "break a story" rather than engage in reporting. (An example of the switch: during the month of July, Headline News showed great gains in ratings among cable news programs because of the Casey Anthony trial -- a sad story that might have belonged in the local paper but was in no way national news!).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, all the reporters who contributed to the Post story (some of the finest names in national, political, and business reporting) would have been reporting on the strategic pursuit of ideology of the "Young Guns" in the House as it was happening. But they'd be accused of shaping the story if they did that. But that's why they got into the business. That's the downside of the access to power. You have to tell the truth as you see it (and not just after the fact).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we wouldn't be interviewing politicians or pundits or even economists about what they thought about policy options. If we're interested in job creation, let's spend the time interviewing people who expanded their workforce in the face of the economic downturn -- how did they do it and what can be replicated? We'd talk to city officials about infrastructure needs and how deferred maintenance is rarely good policy. We'd talk to demographers about the impact of the baby boomers retiring, including how many are retiring early and well. (I've been trying to learn the impact on social security when the Baby Boom "bulge" is replaced by the smaller cohorts that follow -- we hear all the time about too many retirees for the workforce, but is that a temporary problem as I suspect or a permanent one? -- but we rely on "common wisdom" instead).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we'd interview the very homeowners who are facing foreclosure. What percentage did, in fact, make poor choices and what percentage are victims of the housing bubble? And does a commitment to justice mean that poor choosers are thrown on the street when their corporate counterparts get assistance?

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we'd know more about the changing nature of modern society -- and not delivered in the "this will kill your children" mode. We know about differential birth patterns in various racial, ethnic, or class groups but not its implications. We know about declining manufacturing but not its impacts. We know about religious diversity but not about how to live beside those with a different faith (or none at all).

These are the stories we should be hearing. But we aren't. That's why I've laid blame in the media's lap. Politicians will do what politicians do. But the media has exacerbated the situation. If the media hadn't played that role so well, perhaps S&P wouldn't have focused so much on "political brinksmanship" that was the reason they gave for the rating downgrade. Maybe "political brinksmanship" isn't possible without an abetting media.

I know this was very long and has a different tone from my normal blogs. I'll get back to my regular voice in the near future. As I said at the beginning, there's this cathartic thing going on and I feel a little better. Thanks for letting me express my inner Howard Beale.